Aided by charismatic acting and awe-inspiring landscapes, Ondrei Trojan’s “Zelary” is an enjoyable and poignant film. Ultimately, however, its simplistic treatment of characters and events prevent the film from reaching its potential.
Set in Czechoslovakia in the waning years of World War II, “Zelary” is the story of Eliska (Anna Geislerova), a young medical student and resistance fighter. When the Nazis capture her lover and partner, she is forced to flee to the countryside, where she hides as the wife of a peasant named Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), whose life she had saved while working as a nurse. Wracked with grief, Eliska initially has difficultly adjusting to life in the mountain village of Zelary, where Joza lives in a house with dirt floors and no electricity. But gradually Eliska learns to love both the inhabitants of the village and the man she has married, all while living with the constant fear of discovery.
Shot in the countryside of the Czech Republic, Zelary is visually breathtaking. Asen Sopov, the film’s cinematographer, toys with unconventional camera angles and shot composition while making full use of the alternately vivid and ethereal landscape.
The film’s actors are excellent. They demonstrate a sense of nuance and humanity where they could have easily fallen prey to hyperbole. Geislerova, in particular, possesses a natural grace.
But the obviously talented cast can not make up for the script’s shortcomings. Joza’s village is a caricature of pastoral harmony, a utopian dream where everyone helps each other, there is always enough food, and little girls with ribbons run barefoot through the grass. All of the stock characters are there: the wise old woman, the rebellious boy, the glowing young pregnant woman, the tough old farmer and the benevolent priest.
Conveniently, all of the worst impulses of the village are embodied in one villain, a drunkard who beats his son and wife (and who tries to rape the protagonist for good measure.) Joza himself is the archetypal bumbling peasant, kind-hearted and simple. He is likeable but uninteresting, unchanging as a rock.
Eliska is the only character endowed with moral complexity. But the changes she undergoes are sloppily portrayed, and their motives are ambiguous at best. In the space of two days, for example, she goes from being so frightened of Joza that she sleeps with a pair of scissors under her pillow to welcoming him into her bed. It seems all he needed to do was take a bath.
The film’s conclusion brings up interesting post-war social issues, but Trojan hastily shies away from analyzing them. He is content to use the climax as a deus ex machina that conveniently spares Eliska from what could have been the most interesting moral dilemma of the film: having to choose between the sophistication and urbanity of the modern world and a simple but difficult life with a man she loves.